Hawaii turned around under Jones

NEW ORLEANS – When the 1998 football season concluded, Hawaii had lost 18 consecutive football games and was six years removed from its last winning season.

The Warriors, then the Rainbow Warriors, needed something different. Nobody does different like June Jones.

The former Hawaii quarterback and Atlanta Falcons head coach earned a reputation as an outsider in the NFL with his run-and-shoot offense, which racked up big yards but too few wins.

When the Hawaii job came open, Jones was eager to leave his role as the San Diego Chargers quarterbacks coach and accept the challenge of turning around a program.

Hawaii "was always home to me," Jones said. "When I made the decision to come back, I did want to save the program and build a tradition. I just really had a vision that we were going to change who we were."

That change will become evident to the nation Tuesday when Jones leads the undefeated Warriors (12-0) against No. 4 Georgia (10-2) in the Sugar Bowl here in the Louisiana Superdome.

Jones, whose first job in coaching came as the offensive coordinator at Forsyth County High School, started his transformation small. He dropped Rainbow from the team's name and changed the colors to black and green.

"We went in and marketed everything differently," he said.

The window dressing was only the start. The next things he needed was better talent. His unique offense would help draw some of that but more unorthodox measures would be needed, too.

"Three of my best players I got out of jail," Jones says unashamedly. "We had to do it different."

Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan, wide receiver Davone Bess and former Warrior Pisa Tinoisamoa all spent time in correctional facilities due to brushes with the law prior to arriving in Hawaii.

"Some of the people June has gone to bat for and gotten in may not have gotten in other schools," Hawaii athletics director Herman Frazier said. "He wants to give people second chances. He's very passionate about the state of Hawaii. He's passionate about these football players and his team."

While Jones has been handing out do-overs, he's gotten a couple himself. The first came for his head coaching ability and his embattled offense, which have been embraced in Hawaii.

"When they're 0-18, they are not as quick to bad mouth what you do," he said.

His most significant second chance, however, had nothing to do with football.

On Feb. 22, 2001, Jones' car ran into a highway support pillar in the middle of a Honolulu freeway, nearly ending his life. Three-fourths of Jones' aorta was torn, he said, a fact which wasn't discovered for four hours, but after two major surgeries and three weeks of hospitalization, he emerged a man with a mission.

"I should be dead," he said. "There is no medical explanation why I'm alive."

In the absence of a technical reason, he has latched onto a spiritual one.

"I really kind of felt like going into the ‘06 season that I had a great group of guys, and I really felt like the good Lord saved me to teach these young men not just about football but about life," Jones said. "I'd always been that way, but I've probably been a little more that way after the accident."

The Warriors went 11-3 last year, setting the stage for this season's run at perfection. Jones is the winningest coach in the school's history and has presided over the breaking of 411 school and 53 NCAA records.

He's done all of it under conditions Georgia's coaches and players would consider barbaric. Hawaii's recruiting budget of $62,000 is less than 15 percent of what the Bulldogs work with. The office Jones occupies is the same office used by Dick Tomey in 1983, when Tomey was the head coach and Jones coached quarterbacks. The carpet's the same, too, Jones said.

Jones immediately overcame those obstacles and convinced the Warriors they could win. In his first season, Hawaii improved from 0-12 to 9-4 and tied for first place in the Western Athletic Conference.

"I'll say this, and I'm not blowing smoke, there is nobody who could have done what June Jones has done," Hawaii defensive coordinator Greg McMackin said. "I've been with some good coaches and some great coaches, but what he's done here is truly unbelievable."

Now, almost a decade later, he has the Warriors in their first BCS bowl game in school history.

"That," Frazier said, "is probably unfathomable."

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